photo (c) Howard French – http://www.howardwfrench.net/
If you’ve surveyed the U.S. mediascape for the past few years, you’ve found equal measures of fear and celebration of China as it ascends to its preumptive position as the Next Great Superpower. It’s huge, and its people are hard-working robots ideally suited (socially conditioned) to an authoritarian form of state capitalism that will kick all kinds of ass over our soft freedom-lovin’ version, goes the (misguided) subtext, and it will take the U.S. decades to pay off “our” debt to China. Not long ago, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “Five Things the U.S. Can Learn from the Chinese.” Others (like Thomas Friedman) have ballyhooed China’s ability, via an authoritarian alternative to U.S. gridlock, to enact broad environmental and energy policies on a scale unfathomable in the U.S.
I started thinking about all of the “China is the Next Superpower” rhetoric and what holes might logically be punched in it. I recalled how many people were predicting Japan’s rise to global dominance not so long ago. I also wondered about just how propagandistic coverage of China is — what purpose the fear of big bad China would serve. It would be a good stick with which to frighten U.S. citizens and help drive down living standards and wages in the interest of remaining “competitive,” wouldn’t it?
And lo, thanks to various online resources, I found some reasoned and informed critiques of this narrative that may give comfort to those who fear China’s foregone rise to global dominance, at the same time that I found troubling news of how “China” (it’s decision-making and agenda-setting apparatus; not its people) is adapting to global economic realities in part through massive investment in Africa.
Critique and propaganda co-exist. Propaganda, the opposite of critical thinking, plays on emotion. The most effective propaganda is the kind that slides by you in the frame it presupposes. The most obvious and clumsy usually employs heated modifiers like “bloodthirsty,” and “brutally enforced,” both of which appear in the full text of the following article:
In addition to its outdated economic model, China faces a number of other problems, including banks with unacknowledged bad loans on their books, trade friction arising from mercantilist policies, a pandemic of defective products and poisonous foods, a grossly underfunded and inadequate social security system, a society that is rapidly aging as a result of the brutally enforced one-child policy, a rising tide of violent crime, a monumental environmental crisis, ever-worsening corruption, and failing schools and other social services. These are just the most important difficulties.
That’s Gordon Chang, writing for World Affairs Journal, and author of The Coming Collapse of China, in an article that delves into how Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang policy —“reform and opening to the outside world”—while well-suited to the post-Cold War boom, is now deeply beset by global economic realities. For all of the talk about China’s massive foreign currency reserves of about $2.4 trillion, Chang also claims that since 2008, Beijing has presided over “the world’s fastest-slowing economy,” further beleaguered by serious widespread dissent:
Beijing’s policies are widening the gap between the people, who are making a “kinetic dash into the future,” and their government, thereby ensuring greater instability. So it should come as no surprise that as China has grown more prosperous in recent years, it has also become less stable. As a people, the Chinese are not particularly obedient these days; they incite as many as 127,000 disturbances a year—perhaps more. Whatever the exact number, the political system is obviously having increasing difficulty channeling discontent as the Chinese people, believing in their rights and fearing their leaders less and less, wrestle for control of their future.
Even though the article is baldly propagandistic in spots, that doesn’t really make it much different from quite a bit of New York Times coverage of China. It’s still well worth reading in full, here.
As a counterpoint, one of the better journalists (and photographers) covering China, Howard French, recently published an interesting article in The Atlantic about China’s increasing investment in, and/or exploitation of, Africa.
In most of Africa’s capital cities and commercial centers, it’s hard to miss China’s new presence and influence. In Dar, one morning before my train trip, I made my way to the roof of my hotel for a bird’s-eye view of the city below. A British construction foreman, there to oversee the hotel’s expansion, pointed out the V-shaped port that the British navy had seized after a brief battle with the Germans early in the First World War….
“Do you see all the tall buildings coming up over there?” the foreman asked, a hint of envy in his voice as his arm described an arc along the waterfront that shimmered in the distance. “That’s the new Dar es Salaam, and most of it is Chinese-built.”
I counted nearly a dozen large cranes looming over construction sites along the beachfront Msasani Peninsula, a sprawl of resorts and restaurants catering mostly to Western tourists. Near them, sheltered coyly behind high walls, lie upscale brothels worked by Chinese prostitutes. In the foreground, to the northwest, sits Kariakoo, a crowded slum where Chinese merchants flog refrigerators, air conditioners, mobile phones, and other cheap gadgets from narrow storefronts. To the south lies Tanzania’s new, state-of-the-art, 60,000-seat national sports stadium, funded by China and opened in February 2009 by President Hu Jintao.
“Statistics are hard to come by, but China is probably the biggest single investor in Africa,” said Martyn Davies, the director of the China Africa Network at the University of Pretoria. “They are the biggest builders of infrastructure. They are the biggest lenders to Africa, and China-Africa trade has just pushed past $100 billion annually.”
Read “The Next Empire”
French is also a damn fine photographer.
An article from the New York Times, about how a leadership transition is seriously impairing the country’s ability to manage its economy, is also of interest.
And lastly, but certainly not least, is an article by Naomi Klein, published in Rolling Stone, “China’s All-Seeing Eye”. It, too, has its obvious and not-so-obvious propaganda, but still covers eye-opening realities:
Remember how we’ve always been told that free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie. It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American “homeland security” technologies, pumped up with “war on terror” rhetoric. And the global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you.